A Spring Break Reading Recommendation: Stephen King

Zepke line drawing

Recommendation by Katie

I read Stephen King’s book On Writing over the winter break. I started this response to the book nearly four weeks ago and since coming back to it, I’ve decided to change the next sentence:

You may have also recently been in the writing mindset (either getting to the task or planning to get to the task).

Now, enough time has passed since writing the first sentence that you are no longer coming out of the winter break in a restful wake of productive writing. It’s more likely that you are well on you way to the middle of the semester with the calendar days speeding by underfoot. So I’ll change that second sentence to:

Spring break is on the horizon. Maybe you’d like to read a humorous and inspiring book about writing. I recommend Stephen King's On Writing.

That’s one small edit so we can feel a bit more up to date. Though I can’t control when in time you are reading this (it may be late summer and the California drought has returned) at least I will feel less shameful about taking a four-week hiatus and showing it. Also, it models what we see in King’s book, in which he shows us changes he makes to his writing just like you see here. The difference is that King’s reason for including several versions of text is to show the power of editing and I just want to stay in temporal tune with myself.

Edits and reflective comments aside, here’s why you should read his book.

It stands apart from other books on writing.
King’s book can echo the typical book about writing when it covers his suggestive dos and do nots, but unlike the self-serious writers on writing out there - like the Dorthea Brandes, who tease you with mind-enhancing exercises and draw sharp lines between writers and the rest of the world - King leaves you feeling positive about your writing with all your human faults to support you. For me, it means my four-week step-away now feels less shameful and more of a frame that follows King’s own experience with time between writing. While writing the book, King is hit by a van. The accident eventually changes the course and structure of the book.

Also, it is a bit like most books on writing.
In King's toolbox, grammar is important. William Strunk is a higher power, sitting in subtle judgement from beyond. Adverbs are shameful agents of cutting descriptive corners, undoubtedly. Like his writing-about-writing cronies, King covers everything from process to the breakdown the elements of craft, from dialogue to paragraph structure. He describes his writing space as a “closed door” and an “open door.” In the closed door, we write freely and alone. You can probably guess what the open door entails but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s the shared process and the editing. The door is open to criticism. He muses over his desk and how his perception of his writing space has changed into an expansive room and back to his beginnings: a small nook.

Witnessing the honest struggle of writing the book, and the shift in its direction away from a prescriptive structure, is refreshing.
King is not only writing about writing. He is writing about writing about writing. It’s not as annoying as it sounds. Instead it adds dimension while nodding to King’s own dismissal of “high brow” literature. It’s evidence of his effort instead of a perfect, cohesive text tied with the proverbial neat bow. It reminds me of the intimacy of letters, which are the best examples of showing the telepathic magic line between writer and reader, unmasked.

I have a pen pal who lives overseas. We’ve been writing letters since 1999, right around the time Stephen King started his book On Writing. Our letters often bear the evidence of the act in progress, when the basic situations that surround writing appear in or on the paper: food stains, the increasing slant of a tired hand, rumply paper (from the dog stepping all over it) and gaps between thoughts. When I read that something brought my pen pal away from his thought, an extra dimension appears as an unobtrusive fourth wall. In the middle of the paragraph, he will step out to feed his infant son or get back to his dental conference. The experience for him can be hours or weeks. The experience for me is a sudden new tone, a reinvigoration that can pick up somewhere new or continue that old thought but now with more perspective.

This lapse in time and the conversation around the lapse is how we experience King’s book. When he starts writing he is hesitant and his writing is dreamlike. He invites us into unforgettable boyhood experiences, marked by pain and embarrassment in his “C.V.” section. These are little numbered vignettes that offer insights into the developing writer, his picnic basket of consciousness with component lessons, where he discovers the weight of a brick on his infant toes and the consequences of choosing poison oak for toilet paper as his brother suggests.

Though King mentions how important the process of rewriting is (from trimming content to creating cohesion), the actual structure of his book feels as if he ignores this rule for the sake of reporting the effects and for the sake of fun. The structure reflects the duration it took to write, spanning several years and his recuperation from his accident with the van.

King’s basic message is to write what you want.
The most prevalent tone of this book is joy. It's clear that King returns to writing as a way of invention and living, from his days working in a laundry and as a janitor, writing Carrie in the back of his trailer and through his accident. I haven’t read any of Stephen King’s fiction but I plan to. I'd like to see his own advice in action, maybe witness how his writing has changed over his career. I think you'll feel a similar honest and informal inspiration from this book that should keep you feeling good about writing through the semester and into the summer months.

You can check out On Writing by Stephen King at the Gleeson Library.

King, Stephen. On Writing : A Memoir Of The Craft. n.p.: New York, NY : Scribner, 2010., 2010.